[19 March 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Stone Jack Jones is aware of where he comes from. As the title of his new record implies, he’s aware of lineage. But he’s also a wanderer. Rather than follow the four generations of coal miners that came before him in his family, he wandered after missing military service in Vietnam due to epilepsy. He released his last album, Bluefolk, in 2006 and has been quiet ever since. Now, nearly eight years later, he’s returned with another album that certainly wanders, but also provides its own fascinating sense of place.
Jones is based in Nashville now, and he’s stopped wandering long enough to build a community there. That community is what makes Ancestor so striking and rich. The album was produced by Roger Moutenot, famous for producing Yo La Tengo (among others), and players include Patty Griffin, Cortney Tidwell, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner, and Wagner’s fellow bandmates Ryan Norris and Scott Martin. The sound these players make with Jones is noir-folk, haunting stuff that always feels faintly shrouded in tendrils of fog. But that fog is also always burning off, by degrees, as the cautious warmth of these songs takes over.
Ancestor is an album that wanders through emotions and reactions as much as it wanders through space. Opener “O Child” starts with just banjo, that spare dry picking, but when Jones’s cracked, sweet voice comes in, the yearning of the song takes over. “O child, won’t you set me free?” he nearly begs, as the song shuffles to life as if trying to shake off some great weight to move forward. Meanwhile, “Jackson” doesn’t cover the Johnny Cash/June Carter hit, but instead it reveals a respite in travel. Jones is in search of the other voice here, and Cortney Tidwell’s pristine vocals drift in the distance behind him. If he sounds weary, even if the road has made him comfortable with that wear, Tidwell’s voice presents another possible thing to set him free.
The album may be in search of new spaces, of relief from loss and the weight of the everyday, but it can also remind us of the hard days that happen while we’re waiting for a change. “Black Coal” is a dark, brooding, and heartbreaking tune. As the guitars and banjos rise and fall—in search, it seems, of the faint light at the top of the mine—Jones is apologizing to kids left behind. “Tell my children Daddy’s gone to work in a hole,” he said, his voice as resilient as it is resigned. It leads us into the dark, solitary depression of “State I’m In”. This song does glide so much as it trudges. The guitars and drums ripple out into pitch-black darkness. Here, Jones isn’t interested in freedom but rather escape in the moment. Brilliantly, the song’s tone changes subtly when a warm, languid saxophone comes in. All of a sudden, the music that represented depression so well has now transformed into the kind of comforting sound that can draw you out of that feeling.
Ancestor vacillates between darkness and light rather than charting an all-too-easy path from one to the other. So we have the sinister thump of “Way Gone Wrong” but also the bright, fledgling hope of “Joy”. In all of these songs, there are the dusty sounds of banjo and guitar, the shuffling percussion, but there are also atmospheric sounds and dissonant noise that render these songs just a bit alien. If Jones is wandering through a world on this record, it’s one that’s not instantly recognizable. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know this world, too. On “Black Coal”, a harmonica rises, seemingly isolated, out of the mix, as if being played on a front porch. For all its intimacy and raw power, it could be playing alongside Hazel Dickens up in Harlan County. It’s one of many moments that remind us that, though this musical world is strange, there’s still the music of the worker: plainspoken, painful, sweet, powerful. And that’s exactly the kind of record Stone Jack Jones and his musical community have made. It subverts the usual isolated wanderer tale of country music and instead shows us the moss we pick up along the way, no matter how much or how often we roll along. There are still friends, home, work, the earth, and what’s underneath it, hidden deep in mines and other dark spaces.